14 February 2007

Show a Man What He Eats

On Vegetarianism

A history of modern Western vegetarianism, originally published in England, has just arrived on these shores. The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to the Present is better served by its British subtitle—Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India, since the book tells its story largely through the biographies of its major exponents (Sir Francis Bacon; Percy Shelley; Gandhi, among others), most of whom “discovered”—usually through direct experience or travel accounts—the vegetarian philosophies and communities of India, and in turn, attempted to refashion the meat-eating West. In a fascinating account of the roundabout process of this discovery, Stuart explains how Gandhi, who was by education and acculturation a Western man, discovered the vegetarianism of India through a reading of Thoreau (who had immersed himself in Indian philosophy nearly a century before).

The book has quickly become a leaping-off point for forces of seemingly enlightened reaction questioning the moral and ecological coherence of ethical vegetarianism—strikingly, in magazines (The Nation, Salon, and The New Yorker) more or less sympathetic to leftist politics, with which, for better or worse, vegetarianism is often associated. In an article written for The New Yorker, which insinuates that vegetarianism is basically irrelevant, sociologist Steven Shapin examines the familiar “transparency” idea behind food ethics. Shapin quotes Paul McCartney’s famous statement, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian,” an idea which precedes McCartney, and has been incessantly repeated, in varying forms, by vegetarians and other ethical consumers. Packaged meat is a supreme example of the “process” disappearing in the “product.” Increasingly urbanized and alienated from a life lived in nature, among animals, we have no daily experience of the means (reportedly terrible) by which an animal is converted into meat. The idea is that, given a keen and full vision of such a place, sheer mass revulsion would either make us all vegetarians, or would cause us to rise in unified revolt against our own murderous industries. Similar arguments have been made regarding other mass-produced items: clothes, illicit drugs, pornographic films.

But is full disclosure of the means of production ever a sufficient incitement for such a “bloodless” revolution? Though slaughterhouses still do not have glass walls, we have more information now than ever before, which is to say, a generous measure of transparency has already been achieved. Yet many people who have never passed through an abattoir are vegetarian, and many more who have are not. (A Harris poll in 2003 found that 4 to 10 percent of the American population calls itself “vegetarian”; 2.8 percent specify that they never eat red meat, poultry, or fish/seafood, up from 2.3 percent in 2000.) In the face of cruelty, human animals are known to forget what they see. We depend on this forgetfulness. The information gathered about the word- and speech-defying cruelty of the factory farms becomes voluminous, and the number of vegetarians apparently increases, but, statistically, so does the amount of global total meat consumption. Urbanization stimulates both vegetarianism and more meat-eating. Which is to say, the renunciation of meat is not always the result of the availability of facts, or our nearness to the process. Some carnivores even acquire fortitude from their knowledge. In the latter category are writers like Daniel Lazare at The Nation, who knows the facts about the meat industry but sees vegetarianism as “silly defeatism”; meat-eating, meanwhile, is a perpetuation of natural human “sovereignty,” and an admirable example of humanity’s attempt to create “abundance out of scarcity.”

What The Bloodless Revolution makes clear is that vegetarianism has often been spurred by the appearance of an alternative society, which produced the imaginative capability necessary for people to work to transform their own societies. In this sense, ethical vegetarianism has trouble succeeding as a material argument; it works better as an imaginative answer to an irrational system. The familiar vegetarian “conversion” narrative relies on epiphanies: that moment when, staring at the lamb bourguignon, one suddenly imagines the live lamb within the cooked meat. Gandhi gave up meat for a time after suffering nightmares of animals he had eaten bleating and squealing within him. When people look at their clothing tags and feel they can envision international sweatshop labor, the experience is essentially the same. Hitler (among many others) became a vegetarian for health reasons, even though vegetarianism isn’t necessarily healthier than a diet with some meat (Shelley’s vegetarianism left him and his family chronically undernourished). Certain groups, like the Shakers, believed that vegetarianism might deliver them into a prelapsarian existence, since, according to some Biblical readings, the need to murder beasts was a consequence of the exile from Paradise.

The transparency as inspiration argument, on the other hand, derives much of its character from nineteenth-century literary realism, the technique of supplying information in the form of fictional narrative to expose what daily life conceals. In France, for example, writers like Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers pioneered a style of flinging facts at the supposedly contented bourgeoisie, clueing them in to what really goes on. Their primary imagery was gastrointestinal in content. “I would not like to die before having emptied a few more buckets of shit on my fellow men,” wrote Flaubert. In the preface to their novel Germinie Lacerteux, the story of the moral degradation of a seemingly ideal household servant, the Goncourt brothers made clear their aim to turn stomachs: “The average reader,” they wrote, “… likes anodyne, consoling reading, adventures with a happy ending, tales that do not disturb digestion or serenity, this book, with its violent and unhappy story, is calculated to upset his habits and his idea of a healthy life.” But realism is merely a bundle of varied techniques for representation, and when aimed at reform, the result is never automatic or predictable. With The Jungle, Upton Sinclair wanted socialism. What he and the country got were public health reforms in response to unhealthy meat-packing conditions.

Sinclair had little interest in ethical vegetarianism (he gave up meat for a time to cure nervous dyspepsia). But I know of vegetarians who turned away from meat-eating after reading The Jungle. This has less to do with the transparency of the meat production process and more with how the promiscuous means of novels and other arts, regardless of the goals of any individual work, can give us the knowledge we need: in this case, a sense of what animals are and their place. My own turn to vegetarianism came not from reading reports or watching slaughterhouse cameras, but from the distinctly different, but no less unsettling experience of reading J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. It contains no slaughterhouse scenes, and Coetzee makes no arguments for vegetarianism in the book. Rather, for part of the book, his character Elizabeth Costello lectures on the cruelty of our food system, within the fictional scenario of an academic conference. Some of her arguments about the lives of animals are interesting; many of them are unoriginal, even poor. Her comparison of factory farms to the Nazi concentration camps has struck readers as hysterical and unfair (so much so that many writers, including Michael Pollan, have quoted Costello’s words as mirroring the beliefs of Coetzee, largely to discredit him).

But it is the shakiness of Costello’s position, buffered by a heavy reliance on allegorical storytelling (as in Coetzee’s previous novels), that remind one how vegetarianism is less a solidly consistent ethics than a capability. As with the vegetarians in The Bloodless Revolution, Costello makes clear that vegetarianism has come to her through her attribution of an allegorical story to creatures that withhold evidence of it, and from her ability to know about the cruelty done to these creatures without needing to see it happen. This is a kind of knowledge that has nothing to do with visibility. “I was taken on a drive around Waltham this morning,” Costello says in one of her lectures. “I saw no horrors, no drug-testing laboratories, no factory farms, no abattoirs. Yet I am sure they are here. They must be.”

Shapin’s “prosperity” and Lazare’s “abundance” mean nothing less than the seemingly inexorable consolidation of global capitalism, which brings abundance without regard to need. And perhaps what is most in abundance now is information and, indeed, transparency. In response to this information, or concomitant with it, vegetarianism retains one of the few mostly benign utopian impulses, a necessary fiction still around, in its insistence on an alternative society—an insistence that remains valid even when the utopia imagined by some vegetarians seems impossible, ecologically or otherwise. It remains the strongest fortification against the great volume of misinformation: the insidious media campaign of special interests, telling us that meat-eating is necessary for the health of our civilization, for dominating masculinity, for mastery and sovereignty—that catastrophic mastery over the earth which offers up daily evidence of its diminishing returns.

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